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Natural Food Acquisition and Supplementation

On a forum I recently saw a post about feeding tortoises in the winter. For some people, this isn't a problem. Those that live in warmer climates often have access to fresh, natural foodstuffs all year round.

Not all of us are that lucky. I live in the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan, and as I write this, there are three feet of snow on the ground and more is coming down fast. You can be quite sure that my tortoises are not housed in an outdoor pen at the moment, grazing naturally on grasses and broadleaf weeds.

So how are they getting the nutrition that they need?

Here are a few ideas for alternatives to a diet of strictly grocery greens, fruits, and veggies alone.


Hay of course is a commonly used staple for grazing species. Where you are located can have a huge impact on what kind of hay you can acquire, what amounts, and what the cost is.

One good source of grass hay is from suppliers who grow/sell hay for horses. Horses require a better quality hay that has been stored indoors, which cows do not. Make sure to check the hay for mold (white or black "fuzzy" areas,) excessive dust, and color. Generally the greener the hay is, the better the preservation process was and the more nutrient value it will hold. For my part of the state, a 50lb bale of good quality grass-mix hay is $4.25-$6.50 a bale. This is in comparison to approximately $4.00 for TWENTY OUNCES for prepackaged hay from the store!

I have fed Timothy/Orchard Grass/Bermuda Grass hay.  For my older tortoises I do not soak the hay, merely dampen it slightly to make it a bit more palatable. With hatchlings and juvenille tortoises, it may be beneficial to soak the hay. One of the leading causes of death in young torts is dehydration. Adding a bit more moisture to the diet can help prevent that.

Growing Fresh Greens

If you have even a small amount of table space in a warm area to dedicate, try planting a flat or two of seed mix. Grazing seed mixes can be purchased from and Another good source of grazing mix that would be appropriate for your specific soil and climate would be to visit your local agricultural office or university extension. They often sell wildlife grazing plot mixes that are great for grazing species. These mixes may only be available during certain times of the year, or in certain quantities. Please reference the species included in the mix to make sure that they are appropriate for tortoises.

Natural Food Stores

An alternative source of plants such as broadleaf plantain, rose buds, nasturtium and others is to purchase them dried from a local natural food store. My local store carries all these things and more, and the plantain especially is a food source that is great for your grazers. I usually sprinkle a pinch of various dried herbs and weeds over greens that I have wetted to make the dry bits stick.

Gathering and Preparing Your Own

Another option is a good old Ronco Food Dehydrator. Mine is an invaluable tool. I dry my own weeds and grasses that I gather myself, along with certain flowers, which I like to give as a treat rather than fruits. It is also a great way to store leafy greens that have a tendency to come in amounts that a hatchling especially could never eat before they went bad. I dry the greens, crush them fine and then store them in a small container in the fridge. They keep for months this way. A grocery sack full of veggies can fit in a small Gladware container. After chopping hay by grinding it in a coffee grinder for hatchlings and small torts, you can sprinkle the powdered hay or herbs/weeds/flowers on to slightly dampened greens.

Supplementation of Vitamins and Minerals

Over supplementing can be very dangerous.  As long as you are providing a varied, natural based diet, I do not believe that supplements are necessary, with the exception of calcium, and that should be free choice and not forced.  There is more on calcium supplementation below.  

A fantastic source of Vitamin A available to herbivorous tortoises is provitamin A carotenoids found in fruits and vegetables. The most usable form of provitamin A carotenoids is beta-carotene. Broad leaf plantain, Plantago major, is a great source of beta carotene.

f you choose to supplement your tortoise, I suggest using a broad spectrum vitamin, such as Centrum. Our drugs are regulated by the FDA, and therefore we can be more sure what exactly is going into our tortoises.


Calcium Supplements - What to use?

Many tortoises, such as the Sulcata, come from parts of the world where the soil itself is very rich in calcium. The plants that they graze on therefore also contain high levels. Wild tortoises have been observed eating rodent bones and even small, calcium rich pebbles to increase the intake of calcium in their diet.

It is very important for healthy bone and shell growth that the animal's calcium intake needs are met. The reason that we monitor both phosphorus intake and oxalic acid intake is that both compounds block the absorption of calcium.

There are a lot of calcium supplements available in the pet market. The most important rule of thumb - do not use supplements containing vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is absolutely important for chelonians, and all reptiles, to absorb calcium. However, overdoses of D3 result in mineralization of the soft tissues such as the liver. This can be fatal.

Tortoises should receive their needed levels of D3 through diet, exposure to natural sunlight, or UVB lighting. Please follow the manufacturers instructions when placing a light in the enclosure. Very important: The amount of UV light that travels through glass or plastic is not sufficient to produce vitamin D3. The UV rays need to be uninterrupted.

The best form of calcium supplementation is either pure calcium carbonate (i.e. crushed coral) or cuttlebone, such as is offered in pet stores for pet birds. Powdered calcium carbonate can be added to food, as can powdered cuttlebone. Cuttlebone, with the hard backing removed, can also be left in the enclosure. Sometimes tortoises will ignore the cuttlebone for extended periods of time, but do not remove it. Instinct often kicks in suddenly, prompting them to consume it when their bodies need it.  This is the method that I prefer, and it also helps to keep their beaks trimmed.  

I know that all of this information can be very difficult for a new or prospective tortoise owner to take in all at once. Getting a tortoise is a lifetime and very detailed commitment. If at any time I can be of any help, or if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me at and I will do my best to assist you. The only stupid question is the one that you don't ask, and in the end, compromises the life and health of your tortoise.

Kristina Duda © November 18th, 2010